The Effect

by Lucy Prebble
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. Only one slight complication — they are both on a clinical trial for antidepressants. Could love just be a side effect?

Lucy Prebble’s witty, humorous and acclaimed play about the limits of science receives a commendable outing in this debut production of PANGDEMONIUM’s 2016 season. While Prebble endowed the corporate world with the brushstrokes of Greek tragedy in ENRON, she shows herself to be equally adept at exploring the quieter confines of human emotion.

The Effect is an earnest, moving four-hander about individuals struggling to deal with one of the most basic of emotions: Love. At the same time, it is a spirited critique of the modern world of medicine. Can mental issues such as depression be treated simply by a convenient array of drugs or are these caused by external factors beyond the realm of science? Should we, as a character declares, create a “Viagra for the heart”?

The entire action plays out at a medical facility where paid volunteers have agreed to put themselves through a four-week course for a new drug. They include bubbly psychology student Connie (Nikki Muller) and laid-back Irish lad Tristan (Linden Furnell) who find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other.

Comparative newcomers Muller and Furnell, both of whom have appeared in previous PANGDEMONIUM productions, turn in one of their strongest performances to date with a chemistry that truly sets the stage ablaze. In a standout scene, they sneak off to an unoccupied building at night and banter about their lives with such charming, joyful abandon that one instantly sees how they end up falling for each other.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!
Where I was slightly less convinced was the parallel storyline about the two doctors: Psychiatrist Dr Lorna James (Tan Kheng Hua), who is revealed to have had a long battle with depression herself, and suave medical supervisor Dr Toby Sealey (Adrian Pang) with whom she shared a past. It’s obvious that they are intended to act as a foil for the younger couple, but this unfortunately does not always come across.

Tan’s peremptory, reined-in demeanour makes her character difficult to penetrate. When she finally unravels, this seems almost perfunctory. A speech where she reverently examines a human brain and tears it to shreds does not deliver the quiet jolt of emotion one would expect. While Pang lends good support as the confident medical maestro who feels everything can be cured by a pill, his exchanges with Tan lack true conviction.

Tracie Pang delivers another instance of effortless direction that keeps this play funny, moving and constantly engaging. The clean, symmetrical aesthetic of the staging, and impressive lighting and projection design combine to create an experience that is crisp but far from clinical.

Science may be one sophisticated tool, but as The Effect cannily illustrates, it’s sometimes no match for the infinite mysteries of the heart.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 29 February 2016.


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